Regional politicians have weaker ties to the central government in Spain than in the UK or France

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Joan Botella (UAB), Juan Rodríguez, Astrid Barrio and Óscar Barberà (UV)

The aim of this study was to determine the effects of decentralization on the political careers of leaders of regional governments in Spain, France and the UK, giving special emphasis to the spheres they had passed through beforehand. The researchers sought to find out what career paths (national or local) predominated among regional leaders, and whether this had been affected by the evolution of decentralization in each country.

 

Joan Botella (UAB), Juan Rodríguez, Astrid Barrio and Óscar Barberà (UV)

 

The aim of this study was to determine the effects of decentralization on the political careers of leaders of regional governments in Spain, France and the UK, giving special emphasis to the spheres they had passed through beforehand. The researchers sought to find out what career paths (national or local) predominated among regional leaders, and whether this had been affected by the evolution of decentralization in each country. The data confirm the existence of different career patterns, in which local and national experience tends to be dissociated, leading to different career paths for politicians at different levels of government. In France, the regional presidents tend to follow a traditional career pattern, whereas in Spain regional leaders tend to accumulate experience in a specific territory. In the latter case, the consolidation of regional institutions seems to have contributed to the emergence of distinct career paths for regional leaders. This development does not necessarily affect the positive or negative influence that decentralization may have on the lives of citizens, but it does highlight an important change that is happening in the political class of these countries.

 

 

The study stemmed from the observation that, in some countries, decentralization and regionalization may lead to the emergence of a new group of political leaders whose scope of reference and policy action is not in the national arena but rather at a lower level. Furthermore, the comparison of three countries (France, the UK, and Spain) could reveal differences related to the specific institutional characteristics of each country and the political traditions of their leaders.

 

In the UK, where decentralization took place quite recently, all the leaders of the regional governments (i.e. Scotland and Wales) have worked in national institutions, and in some cases are individuals with ministerial experience that were involved in the creation of devolution laws in the late 90s. In the French case, on the other hand, regional political elites continue to have a typical feature of French politicians: career paths through various levels of government. It is striking that most French regional presidents have accumulated experience in both local and national politics. However, in recent years there have been some regional leaders whose main experience is at the regional level, suggesting a new development in French politics.

 

Although the Spanish case was quite similar to the cases of France and the UK during the early years of decentralization (when regional presidents got experience in the national parliament, then sought their fortune at the regional level), it has evolved quite differently since the 90s. Since then, there have been a large number of autonomous community presidents whose sole or main experience has been gained in regional politics. Simultaneously, regional leaders with political experience in the Spanish Parliament have disappeared, with the exception of a few autonomous community presidents who had previously been important ministers in the central state.

 

What is the significance of this new pattern? If this trend is consolidated in the future, there will be a situation that was not foreseen by the political leaders who sought decentralization: the creation of regional institutions may foster the emergence of regional leaders who are out of touch with the national political sphere (not having worked in the central government, national parliament, or any other national institution). This could have positive effects in terms of the legitimacy of sub-national political action, as it could allow better representation of the needs of citizens--thanks to their proximity to the government--and give greater impetus to the territorial development of regions. Nevertheless, it may also have negative effects, such as an increase in conflicts between national and regional governments due to the absence of shared experiences among political leaders of the two spheres, the development of demands for greater self-government and other regional claims, and the strengthening of patronage networks in the sphere of regional politics.

 

Read the full article in Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas, January – March 2011